School of
Social Sciences
___Introduction to Sociology
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Identity And Embodiment -
Madness And Civilisation

 


 

Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilisation (1964)
by Jane Louis-Wood

Foucault's history of madness was not written from a psychiatric, or even a scientific viewpoint, but rather as a study of madness itself and how it was conceptualised:

We must try to return in history to that "zero point" in the course of madness when it was suddenly separated from reason - both in the confinement of the insane and in the conceptual isolation of madness from reason as unreason.

He delineated madness as as an object of perception within a "social space," an object structured in different ways according to historical specificity, an object of perception produced by the social practices at work.

He traced the history of madness through four distinct phases, from the mediaeval notion of madness as a kind of chaotic natural force exiting outside man and derived from Biblical concepts such as God's will, Satan and the end of time and the world and enacted in Miracle plays and mimes. During the second phase, the Renaissance, madness began to depicted through literature, philosophy and art as something which existed in man. Madness retained a symbolic public role, epitomised by the figure of the Fool, who could subvert reason with folly - demonstrating the madness of reason itself.

The classical age (roughly 1650 - 1800) effectively silenced the madness that had been given imaginary freedom in the Renaissance, as the confinement of lunatics became a common practice.

Confinement is the practice which corresponds most exactly to madness experienced as unreason, that is, as the empty negativity of reason. By confinement, madness is acknowledged to be nothing.

Often little or no distinction was made between criminals, beggars and the insane - as the reason for confinement was primarily economic in an age where work equated to redemption and idleness to rebellion. The relationship of the classical age to madness was an ambivalent one, where mad family members were considered a subject of shame and scandal and were hidden away in asylums, yet those same asylums exhibited their inmates. At the Bethlehem hospital in London the lunatics were displayed to almost 100,000 people a year. Madness had once been mimed, yet now it was presented as inscribed in flesh and blood - no longer a monster arising inside oneself, but a thing to look at, to study and contain. Madness was no represented a Fall from divine grace, but a social failure, where the asylum mirrored the bourgeois authoritarian order.

The fourth and final phase of the history of madness is the twentieth century, the age of Freud and psychoanalysis. Freud, according to Foucault, abolished the regime of silence employed by the asylumists and made the mad talk. Yet that talk was mediated by the analyst, the omnipotent and quasi-divine medical figure - psychiatric language did not allow madness to speak, but remained a monologue of reason about language.

For Foucault, the only way for madness to live "in itself", outside of the confinement of authoritarian reason, is through art and philosophy - through Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Van Gogh.



More Material On This Website  External Link
Two excellent essays on Michel Foucault by Jane Louis-Wood:  
Foucault For Beginners Foucault Pages (External Link)
Madness And Civilisation  


These pages were originally written by: Angus Bancroft and Sioned Rogers
Redesigned and updated by: Pierre Stapley - 2010